Rock art is present in almost all inhabited regions of the globe (over 120 countries). It is an information network on man’s intellectual beginnings. These days, this fragile heritage produced in caves or in the open air presents a challenge of hard work of research and preservation.
Rock seems to have been its most ancient medium – if there were any other (body painting, tattoos, adornments, decorations, tree trunks or leaves, drawings in the sand, collections of rocks and pebbles), they did not, for obvious reasons, survive the erosion of millennia. Music and dance have left only indirect traces in representations or vestiges in artefacts and objects.
It is an art of the ‘uneducated populations’ – it dawns with the appearance of Homo sapiens and vanishes along with writing – and is the most important evidence of this period. Research teams have been trying, for a long time, to pinpoint not only the maximum number of rock art locations in the five continents, but also the many scattered documents. The purpose of these archives, which span 40.000 years in art history, is to undertake comparative and synthesis studies from an increasing number of pre-historic figurations. Some of the best known projects are the World Archive of Rock Art (WARA), created in Italy in 1983, and the International Council of Rock Art (CAR-ICOMOS), which has a documentation centre on cultural heritage as well as several activities, mostly by UNESCO. ICOMOS is an NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) which aims to promote the theory, methodology and the technology capable of securing the protection and appreciation of monuments and archaeological sites. The documentation centre covers all regions of the globe and all stages of preservation of cultural heritage, and the results of specialised research are published on a regular basis. Apart from estimates and conclusions, the final reports explore the meaning of symbols and the syntax of associations, reinforcing the idea that rock art is an inescapable source to research the conceptual and psychological foundations of modern man, as was postulated by Emmanuel Anati, in 1984 and in 1993, the author of two published reports: ‘In fact, the archetypes and paradigms at the root of our being are to be found in the art of our origins, and there they still remain, deeply anchored, to this day’.
These carvings must have been perfectly ‘legible’ to the eyes of those knowledgeable of its mythical and conceptual content; however, such direct tradition was severed. The work of an archaeologist consists in gathering elements that provide an understanding of which ideas stem from those signs. ‘Research provides the surfacing of a series of constants in rock art from all continents: the use of similar colours and techniques, restricted and repeated topics, the same means of association and type of logic, the recurrence of a range of pictograms, ideograms and psychograms. This evidence [...] prompts us to think that at the foundation of all artistic creativity we are to find the same structural basis and the same conceptual dynamics’ (Emmanuel Anati, 1998).
There are five categories at the level of style and content: art performed by archaic hunters, unacquainted with the bow and arrow, without composed scenes, only short syntactic sequences; art performed by wild berry gathering peoples, with simple scenes, most of the times produced under hallucination; art performed by evolved hunters who used the bow and settle in social situations; art performed by shepherds, mindful of domestic animals and family life; art performed by peoples who balanced economy and agricultural activities, composing mythological scenes. Man has acted within the framework of specific mental mechanisms since the dawn of art, some 40.000 to 50.000 years ago, which have led him to the invention of associations, symbols, abstractions or sublimations: even today this is one of its many specific universal characteristics. The answer to this supposed topical and technical unity of pre-historic arts is an amazing symbolic diversity, in accordance with cultures and times.
These are the similarities and differences that mark the unity and diversity of the pre-historic art that the Sapiens has developed around the world. They translate the fundamental links between the various cultures, the economies and their graphic expressions, but they do not hide the cultural originalities of the human groups.
Research processes – marking sites, searching and selecting carvings, analysis and dating of remains, hypothesis, links, provisional syntheses, reports, etc. – are writing-specific processes. Only the culture of writing allows a detailed look of non-written documents; only writing can rewrite the time it leaves behind as it cuts with tradition in order to appropriate of its meaning, and therefore may give meaning to it.
The ensuing result of the writing process is the idea of ‘archive’. Michel Foucault conferred on this notion a complex theoretical status. In L’archéologie du savoir (1969), he considered that, ‘instead of lining up, over history’s big mythical book, words which translate thoughts constituted before and somewhere into visible characters, we have in the depth of discursive practices systems that impose propositions as events […] and as things […]. I propose to call all these systems of propositions [...] as archives». It is neither about the sum of all the texts that each culture preserves as documents of its own past, nor the institutions that register or make them available. It is not about questioning statements, or who proffered them, or under which circumstances they were proffered. It is about understanding ‘the game of relations’, ‘the specific regularities’, ‘the discursive system’, ‘the proposed possibilities and impossibilities’, ‘the law of what can be stated, the system that oversees the appearance of propositions as singular events’ .
The aim of setting up an archive is to save the amorphous multiplicity of that which is said, without the intent of including them in any linearity: it outlines their compositions and proximity relations despite time and space distances; it defines whether the proposition can be proposed and whether it is functional, even though it may erase itself; it distinguishes and specifies the discourses, without forcing them into a confused unity. ‘Standing between the language that defines the building system of possible sentences and the corpus that passively collects the pronounced words, the archive defines [...] a practice which gives rise to a multiplicity of propositions as regular events, as things being offered to processing and to manipulation’. Due to this condition of practice over discursive practices, the archive is not mistaken for a library which, together with the museum, Foucault (in another text, “Des espaces autres”, written in 1967) called ‘heterotopical space’ in which ‘time never stops piling up’. The archive ‘is the general formative and transformational centre of propositions’, hovering between accumulation and deletion, ‘tradition and oblivion’.
The importance of Foucault’s concept of archive exceeds the limits of this brief text. Questioning the idea of ‘man’, ‘subjectivity, and ‘identity’, in line with history’s continuities and ruptures, brings to bear ‘the other’ and the ‘outward’.
Foucault decides, ‘as a right of the words, to call this research archaeology, aiming not to revisit the forgotten origin but the dispersion that we are and of what we do. In short, he conceives four principles:
- archaeology tries to define discourses as regulated practices: not discourses as documents, as more or less transparent signs of another thing, but in its own volume as monuments; thus, it is neither an interpretative nor an allegorical discipline;
- archaeology is a ‘differential analysis of discourse modality, not a ‘doxology’, but the search for discourse specificity, indomitable to any other;
- archaeology defines the types of discursive rules and practices that traverse individual works: the instance of the creative subject is an alien idea to it;
- archaeology does not envision the restitution of what might have been ‘thought, wanted, aimed, experienced, desired by men the moment they proffered the discourse’; it seeks neither an identity nor an origin.
Archaeology is ultimately defined by Foucault as a ‘rewrite’, kept as an ‘outwardness’, as a ‘systematic description of a discourse-object’.
As located and unmovable monuments, alien to any possibility of displacement to become part of a library or museum collection, Palaeolithic carvings bring the archiving project closer to these principles. Both its stony opacity and the one imposed by the elapsed time make it impossible (‘opacify’) to glimpse something else behind them, despite the insistent appeal to speculation and to narrative. The unity and diversity found in discovered drawn figures, the recurrence to technical materials and symbolic originality, the mental mechanisms on course, the execution integrated in the environment and the natural elements, the symbolic ability and the rigidity of the living conditions – hinder any pretence of a discourse about the origins, of an absolutely dated origin, situated and enlightened over art, language, man. There will always be a missing link which no archive, not even a utopian archive of archives, can tell.
In its electronic and digital support, the archive becomes the database – transferable in space, preserved over time, alien to any authorial presence. It is authored by so many that it surmounts the principle of the author as authority. As a text with a meaning, the database belongs to no one but to all. Yet, it ‘belongs’ to the social institution which is the holder of its ownership, to the company, the state, the library, the university. ‘The database is a discourse in pure writing that magnifies the power of its owner/user’ (Poster, 1995), and like the discourse, is a practice ‘which systematically shapes the objects it deals with’ (Foucault, 1969).
AAVV, Le Courrier de l’Unesco, Paris, Avril, 1998
Michel Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir, Paris, Ed. Gallimard, 1969